Reply To: Mon 17 March: Greece and Revisionist Environmental History

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Author Replies # Posted on March 18, 2014 at 10:05

Discussion seminar March 17 with Oliver Rackham – Greece and revisionist environmental history
Reflection by Kristina Berglund

Yesterday’s discussion seminar with Professor Oliver Rackham as well as the assigned article dealt with the ecology and pseudo-ecology of ancient Greece. As a revisionist historical ecologist Rackham presented some of the main theories about the ecology of ancient Greece and discussed how some of these theories might be described as pseudo-ecology. Before further elaborating on this I have to say I think it is fascinating how it is even possible to say anything about what happened so many years ago, the existence of plants, trees and what the climate was like. It is amazing to think about how we can know all this, and also how we in can learn from this history.

In academia as well as in everyday life, people lacking deeper understanding of a particular field or question reduce information into generalizations and simplify the information in order to make sense of it. These generalizations are done all the time, and are often helpful to get an understanding of a certain event, problem or issue. However, when these simplifications become what Rackham calls ‘factoids’ it becomes more problematic. These presumed ‘facts’ are in reality not true at all, and as they grow bigger they can form a pseudo-theory, in the case of Greece a ‘pseudo-ecology’ – “a coherent, logical, reasonable, and widely accepted system of belief having no connection with the real world”. Rackham argues that due to many different reasons, landscape history and maybe particularly the landscape history of Greece, is particularly susceptible to this non-objective, untrue ecologies.
Rackham points out that the ecology of ancient Greece does not look very different from Greece today – today being defined as Greece up until the extensive changes of the 20th century. Many traditional accounts of Greece’s ancient ecology as e.g. being a ‘Garden of Eden’: a lush, green area covered with high growing trees, are thus not valid in Rackham’s view. What would have been of further interest for me would have been to hear Rackham elaborate more about what he thinks about the changes in landscape and ecology after the 20th century and onwards to today, and why this part of history is not included in his accounts.
Not having enough personal knowledge on Greek ecology either today or in ancient times, the main point I take with me from this seminar is the importance of critically analyzing facts and narratives we often take for granted as self-evident. To ask whether different information we absorb really is ‘true’, or at least to critically examine the motives and theories that underpin different narratives. This might be more important now than ever, as we live in a society characterized by information-overload and globalization of communication. I bring with me from this seminar the significance of taking in as much different sources of information as possible before making conclusions about a specific question – whether the question regards the reasons for the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, the existence of wolfs in Sweden, or what ancient Greek ecology looked like. Although this is not something new or particularly ground-breaking, I think it is important to remind ourselves about it.